Ernst Bacon

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Ernst Bacon
Born (1898-05-26)May 26, 1898
Chicago, Illinois
Died March 16, 1990(1990-03-16) (aged 91)
Orinda, California

Ernst Lecher Bacon (May 26, 1898 – March 16, 1990) was an American composer, pianist, and conductor. A prolific author, Bacon composed over 250 songs over his career. He was awarded three Guggenheim Fellowships and a Pulitzer Scholarship in 1932 for his Second Symphony.


Ernst Bacon was born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 26, 1898 to Maria von Rosthorn Bacon (sister of Alfons von Rosthorn and Arthur von Rosthorn) and Dr. Charles S. Bacon. At the age of 19, Bacon was enrolled at Northwestern University where he pursued a degree in mathematics. After three years of study, he moved to the University of Chicago. Bacon finished his education at the University of California at Berkeley, where he received a master's degree for the composition of The Song of the Preacher in 1935. His teachers there included Ernest Bloch (composition), Alexander Raab (piano), and Eugene Goossens (conducting).

At the age of 19, Bacon wrote a complex treatise entitled "Our Musical Idiom," which explored all possible harmonies. However, when he began to compose music in his 20s, he rejected a purely cerebral approach. He took the position that music is an art, not a science, and that its source should be human and imaginative, rather than abstract and analytical.

Bacon was self-taught in composition, except for two years of study with Karl Weigl in Vienna, Austria. Experiencing the depression of post-war Europe first hand, he understood that the avant-garde movement reflected the pessimism of its origins. Bacon set out instead to write music that expressed the vitality and affirmation of his own country. Sometimes compared with Béla Bartók, Bacon incorporated into his music the history and folklore, as well as the indigenous music, poetry, folksongs, jazz rhythms, and the very landscape of America.

As with Franz Schubert, a large body of more than 250 art songs is at the heart of an oeuvre that also includes numerous chamber, orchestral, and choral works. According to Marshall Bialosky, Ernst Bacon was "one of the first composers to discover Emily Dickinson... and set a great number of her poems into some of the finest art song music, if not actually the very finest, of any American composer in our history." He was deeply drawn by Walt Whitman's amplitude of vision, as well as by the poignant economy of Dickinson. Other poets with whom he felt an affinity included Carl Sandburg (who was a personal friend), Blake, Emily Brontë, Teasdale, and Housman.

In addition to his musical and literary composition, Bacon held a number of positions that took him across the country. From 1925-28, Bacon was an opera coach at the Eastman School of Music. In 1928 Bacon traveled from New York to California to take up a position at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where he served until 1930. In 1935, Bacon was the guest conductor at the first Carmel Bach Festival in California. A year later he was supervising the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Music Project and conducting the San Francisco Symphony. From 1938-45, he was dean and professor of piano at Converse College, Spartanburg SC. From 1945-47 he was director of the school of music, then from 1947-63 he was professor and composer in residence at Syracuse University. He was professor emeritus from 1964. He continued to compose almost to the day he died, on March 16, 1990 in Orinda, California.

His students include: Don Martino, Carlisle Floyd, and Jake Heggie


ERNST BACON THE COMPLETE WORKS FOR SOLO GUITAR Azica Records, ACD-71294, Bradley Colten, Guitar.

FORGOTTEN AMERICANS, Arabesque Recordings Z6823, Includes: "A Life," Joel Krosnick, cello and Gilbert Kalish, piano.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN PORTRAITS, Naxos 8.559373-74, Nashville Symphony, Leonard Slatkin, conductor, Includes: "Ford’s Theatre: A Few Glimpses of Easter Week, 1865."

THE BACK OF BEYOND, Music for Flute and Piano, Lea Kibler, Flute; Irina Viritch, Piano, Includes: "Buncombe County, N.C.," "Burnt Cabin Branch," "Holbert's Cove."

FOND AFFECTION, CRI CD 890 (now at New World Records), 25 Bacon settings: Janet Brown, soprano; Herbert Burtis piano, Willam Sharp, baritone; John Musto, piano, Amy Burton, soprano; John Musto, piano, Sonata for Violin and Piano (1983) - Ronald Copes, violin; Alan Feinberg, piano.

REMEMBERING ANSEL ADAMS AND OTHER WORKS, CRI CD 779 (now at New World Records), Remembering Ansel Adams (1985) - Richard Stoltzman, clarinet; Warsaw Philharmonic, Jerzy Swoboda, conductor, Sonata for Cello and Piano (1948) - Bernard Greenhouse, cello; Menahem Pressler, piano, Collected Short Piano Works (1950 -1965) - Emily Corbato, piano, Tumbleweeds (1979) Dorothy Bales, violin; Allan Sly, piano.

SONGS OF CHARLES IVES AND ERNST BACON, CRI CD 675 (now at New World Records), Contains 21 Bacon settings, Recorded in 1954 and 1964 with Helen Boatwright, soprano and Ernst Bacon at the piano for his own songs.

ROSI & TONI GRUNSCHLAG PIANO DUO, CRI CD 606 (now at New World Records), Includes: "Coal-Scuttle Blues," (by Bacon and Otto Lueining).

THE LISTENERS, New World Records, William Parker, baritone, Includes: "Billy in the Darbies."

SHAKESPEARE AND THE MODERN COMPOSER, Soundmark, The Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney, Jorge Mester, "The Enchanted Isle/The Tempest."


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